CD and Book Reviews
I was already familiar with James Brown’s Say It Live and Loud (Polygram), which was recorded live at Memorial Auditorium in Dallas on August 26, 1968. I was there, a couple of rows back from the front, and hearing it all over again is one sweet pleasure: the tight, percolating orchestra with arrangements that improve classics like “I Feel Good,” emcee Maceo Parker, Jr., whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and the squeals and howls of Soul Brother Number One. And hearing “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” made me feel just as weird as when I mumbled “I’m hmmm-mmmm and I’m proud” during the song’s call-and-response at the concert. It still makes my backbone slip like nothing else imaginable. . . . Just when the novelty of a bug-eyed baritone in a cowboy hat playing a weird stringed contraption should be wearing off, Junior Brown has hit his stride. The Austinite’s fretwork on Long Walk Back (Curb) is nothing short of phenomenal, embellished with more exotic tones and more echo than ever—and there are even chick background singers. Brown is so danged gifted that he’d be pigeonholed as the guitar hero’s guitar hero if not for his peculiar subject matter, which ping-pongs from hula girls and fast cars to pure schmaltz.
JOE NICK PATOSKI
Austinite James McMurtry reprises his role as the chronic malcontent on Walk Between the Raindrops (Sugar Hill), even devoting an entire song to scolding a rude airline employee. Not exactly the stuff of high drama, and McMurtry’s laconic, offhand delivery does little to raise the stakes; he doesn’t sing as much as inflect. Yet character studies have always driven his best work, and Raindrops features quite a cast of Texas originals: the put-down, revenge-minded soul, the slow, painful redeemer, the “drinking man with a guitar problem.” . . . Elliott Smith earned his following in the hallowed rock scene of the Pacific Northwest, but the Dallas native may find his hip credentials revoked with the release of XO (DreamWorks), an unabashed, meticulously crafted pop outing. It needn’t concern him. His stark, gritty worldview is transformed by the album’s peculiar time-warp sensibility. Layered vocals, acoustic guitars, strings, electric pianos, and organs all swirl in a lush midrange mosh, while Smith’s songcraft grows more sophisticated and oblique. Repeated listening is rewarded; XO enthralls, surprises, and ultimately seeps into your subconscious to stay awhile.
Five of the seven members of Los Super Seven are Texans—Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, Ruben Ramos, Joe Ely, and Rick Treviño—and several others sit in, including Doug Sahm. On their eponymous RCA release, the band plays Mexican and Tex-Mex songs, plus Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” lending them judicious pop- American inflections but staying close to the source. Their approach is so low-key, their harmonies so soothing, that they may not connect with you right away. But give ’em another chance or two, and they’ll grow on you.
Billy Joe Shaver and son Eddy continue their nineties renaissance with Victory (New West Records), a collection of original spirituals named for Ma and Grandma Shaver. Entirely acoustic, with Billy Joe on guitar and vocals and Eddy on Dobro and guitar, this grave and lovely twelve-song set has the fervor of a couple of true believers—in both the Gospel and the folk song—but the casual intimacy of a live recording. . . . In 1995 Tripping Daisy had an alternative radio hit. Three years later, nobody remembers, which is probably why the Dallas band’s third CD, Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb (Island), sounds as if it were made purely for its own sake. It’s a shiny, psychedelic sour-candy concoction of angular art-pomp, with dreamily melodic songs like “Sonic Bloom” at the sweet center.
Like a chemist pounding powders into a medicinal compound, Abraham Verghese blends diverse elements into a cohesive and therapeutic whole in The Tennis Partner (HarperCollins, $25). In his likable but unflinching style, the El Paso physician reveals the real-life tale of a young friend who is a fellow doctor, the sports buddy, and a cocaine addict. Verghese’s ruminative asides are eye-opening too, such as a mini-discourse on the sites and varieties of his patients’ tattoos. . . . Doctors frown on barbecue pork rinds no doubt, but that’s just what Joe R. Lansdale’s work is like: nasty and nonnutritious but, if you’re in the mood, addictively scarfable. In Rumble Tumble (Warner Books, $22), the fifth mystery starring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, the East Texas hell-raisers set out to free a friend’s druggie daughter from white slavery. Nacogdoches boy Lansdale excels at dialogue, especially Hap and Leonard’s lewd insult-a-thons, and his backwoods surrealism is at once hilarious and gross. Two thumbs-up, and pardon the barbecue smears. . . . Blast From the Past (Simon and Schuster, $23) is the latest from Kerrville’s warmhearted warpmonger, Kinky Friedman. The eleventh caper by the self-described “canny, crepuscular, cat-loving crime-solver” is about—aw, it doesn’t matter. There’s a plot, sure, and all the usual suspects, but the real fun is learning to speak Kink: “weasel dust” (cocaine), “stepped on a rainbow” (died), “CPA” (current pelvic attraction, or girlfriend).